Gio Urshela was not a particularly significant baseball player before this season. A glove-first, light-hitting third baseman, the Colombian national bounced between the minors and majors with Cleveland and Toronto for the better part of four seasons, providing well-below-average offensive production with some highlight reel plays at the hot corner. Yankee fans may remember Urshela flashing leather at Progressive Field back in 2017.
More significant in my mind is his presence in the ALDS a few months later. Urshela started all five games of that series batting ninth and went 2-for-12 with six strikeouts against Yankees pitching, but one of those hits brought the Indians within one run in Game 5. The reason I could even tell you who Urshela was when the Yankees acquired him from the Blue Jays in August of last year is the memory of my blood pressure rising as he came through with a one-out single off CC Sabathia.
Urshela is now a household name among Yankee fans for much more pleasant reasons. With Miguel Andújar on the injured list for most of the first month of the 2019 season, Urshela, who spent the rest of the season after the trade with Triple-A Scranton, has proven an essential piece in the team’s successful April. While it’s no secret that Urshela can pick it at third with the best of them, his unexpected offensive contributions are the big story. He’s been one of the Yankees’ most valuable hitters, slashing .338/.410/.485 for a wRC+ of 143 through 75 plate appearances. For a player who never eclipsed 70 in that last statistic before this season and whom ZiPS projections pegged for a mark of 78 this year, these are mind-boggling numbers. How has Urshela done it? Can we possibly expect this to continue? Most importantly of all, where does he fit long term as the Yankees welcome Andújar back into the fold?
Urshela has never been much of a power hitter, and that hasn’t changed all that much this season. He’s hit just one home run, he doesn’t hit the ball in the air much, and his average exit velocity doesn’t jump off the page. But other elements of his offensive profile do look different. For starters, Urshela is hitting the ball harder than ever before. His hard contact rate (per FanGraphs) sits at 39.7 percent on the season after languishing in the lower 20s during his two partial seasons as a regular in Cleveland. He’s become a line-drive machine with 34.5 percent of his batted balls classified as liners, and his ground-ball rate has fallen. He’s also pulling the ball much more this season. Baseball Savant’s expected statistics place him in the sky-scraping 98th percentile for batting average and 88th percentile for wOBA, a nod to Urshela’s apparent ability to strike and elevate the ball better than he has in the past.
In some ways, Urshela has merely developed a skill he already had. He’s always been relatively tough to strike out – his K percentage has ranged from slightly to handily below average during his various stints in the majors, and sits at an impressive 12 percent this season, within the top 8 percent of all hitters in the game. This is for a few reasons: he is a free swinger (51.4 percent swing rate this season) but is excellent at making contact on pitches that he chases (77.8 percent O-Contact rate this season with a league average of just 61.4 percent, per FanGraphs). Urshela’s overall contact rate has also consistently surpassed the league average and does so by eight percentage points this year. He’s a classic contact hitter. But instead of slapping ground balls the opposite way – like his ALDS single in 2017 – he’s now pulling line drives for singles and doubles. Urshela is never going to crush moonshots, but he’s now essentially a more effective version of the player he’s always been.
Urshela is not going to hit .338 all season long. His BABIP sits at a lofty .379, and although the computers rightfully appreciate the increase in the quality of his contact, we can expect some regression to the mean as he accumulates more plate appearances. He’s also inflating his numbers against fastballs right now (xBA of .408), and pitchers are going to adjust their approaches as his ability to drive heaters becomes well known. The question of the hour is where he fits as the regulars trickle back, and more specifically, what to do now that Andújar has returned. One fact remains true: while Andújar put together an entire season’s worth of Urshela’s April production and is unquestionably a superior hitter, he isn’t fit to lace up Urshela’s spikes when it comes to glovework. Defensive statistics are notoriously fickle, but both DRS and UZR show Andújar and Urshela practically playing different sports at third. Andújar’s bat is part of the Yankees’ best lineup, but Urshela has shown enough at the plate to warrant a place on the roster and consistent usage.
The best possible solution probably involves more time at designated hitter for Andújar. This is quite simple in the short term but becomes more troublesome once the Yankees’ cavalry of dinger-bashing outfielders returns from injury. Depth is the best issue a team can have, however, and the Yankees have to feel good about their squad when there is a debate about how to use a player like Urshela. Ultimately, whether he becomes a solid bench piece and late-inning defensive substitute, solidifies his role as a semi-regular, or merely returns to the minors, he’s contributed significantly to the 2019 Yankees with his surprisingly effective April. That alone makes him a more significant baseball player than anyone could have foreseen.